“Marys Seacole” is a complex play about a 19th Century healer…and all other female healers ever

photo by Michael Brosilow

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s expressionistic biographical play Marys Seacole is the Pulitzer Prize winner’s deep dive into the role of the female healer in the world, focusing on Mary Seacole, the lauded 19th Century Jamaican “doctress” who, like Florence Nightingale, became famous for helping wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, even building a “hotel” to look after them. But Drury’s intentions go much beyond that: she wants to show that all mothers, nurses, and caregivers in all eras share a societal and historical connection to each other and to Seacole. They are all “Marys”; hence the plural title.

Now, I am going to do something in this review that I rarely, if ever, do: I’m basically going to walk you through the play, which (by its very structure) defies any attempts by directors Jerrell L. Henderson and Hannah Todd to make it plain and clear. It is a brilliant piece of writing, but even these strong directors and this excellent cast can’t prevent it from feeling rather muddy at times. But that’s OK: not all plays need to be crystal clear. I’ve reviewed many of them that required sitting and thinking (and sometimes reading the script) to unravel their meanings. With that in mind, let me tell you a few things about Marys Seacole:

First, it’s a very powerful play about a woman most Americans are not familiar with, but who is considered the “Greatest Black Briton” across the pond. Next, the cast play many different characters across multiple eras who are tied together by the names they share (all of which are also very similar to each other: Mary, May, Miriam, Mamie, and Merry). Third, if you seek linearity in the play’s narrative, you won’t find it. Don’t bother looking. Fourth, there is a decent chance that, when all is said and done, you will appreciate it more than enjoy it or even, possibly, understand it (unless, like me, you spend hours contemplating it…which BTW is worth it). Finally, you’ll leave wanting to know more about who Mary Seacole was.

With that being said…

The play, 95 fast-paced minutes long, opens with the original Mary standing center stage. Seacole and other, more modern, nurses named Mary (who sometimes briefly channel the original during their scenes) are played by Stephanie Mattos, whose performance here is nothing short of magnificent. At first appearing in a Victorian dress, Mattos addresses the audience directly, listing the topics that “Act One” will cover such as “My Birth and Parentage” and “My Early Tastes and Predilections.” Note that this “Act One” exists only in the character’s mind; the play is performed in a single act. (Its topic divisions, by the way, are from Seacole’s autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Mary Seacole in Many Lands, a tome that this play often pulls from.)

After telling us how she got started with healing—she learned the art from her mother, practicing at first on dolls and then on pets—Mary suddenly shifts her voice into “something…else.” (That’s how Drury describes it.) Speaking from some other plane, connecting to the Infinite, she intones:

Gave myself power.
I gave powers to myself.
I went to many, many places.
I saw many, many things.
I went to many places that no longer exist.
I saw things that can no longer be seen.
I produced cures that cannot be comprehended. I.
It all.
I see you.”

So Drury serves early notice that this is not going to be a straightforward bio play, which becomes even more obvious when another character appears and places a bluetooth earpod in Mary’s ear, the first of many times in which past and present overlap.

Mattos and five other actors carry us through ever-morphing scenes, eras, and locations. We see a busy woman (Jesi Mullins, whose many characters are all named “May”) with her teenage daughter (an often comic Izzie Jones, playing characters named “Miriam”) visiting her sick mother (India Whiteside: “Merry”) in a hospital. Merry is conscious, but neither we nor her daughter and granddaughter know at first if she knows what is going on around her. In any case, a modern Mary, now in nurses’ scrubs, arrives to care for her (and to absorb May’s verbal abuse, which unfortunately is also an inescapable aspect of the modern service industry). A younger nurse (MacKenzie Williams: “Mamie”) is on hand, partly so that Mary can delegate the less pleasant aspects of patient care.

OK, I’m going to use the actors’ names instead of the confusingly similar character ones. I hope that will help you to follow this.

A different scene takes place at Mary Seacole’s first hotel, this one in Jamaica. When a young girl (Jones) suddenly bursts in and collapses, the women who are already in the hotel lounge worry about cholera. But one of them (Whiteside) knows Mary’s reputation as a healer from personal experience:

“A devil cholera had taken hold.
And the doctor bled me and bled me, till my blood turned red again,
But the sickness never loosened his grip…
Until Missus Mary Seacole came to me.”

Calling Mary a “dusky angel” and a “saint,” she toasts the doctress with the others as Mary leaves with the young woman to pay a house call to the girl’s baby, who is ill. The remaining women continue drinking and toasting until one of them (Mullins) hears a phone alarm go off and suddenly exclaims with equally anachronistic energy, “Fuck me, I’m late,” and hurries off, passing the sixth actor (RjW Mays: “Duppy Mary”), who has silently entered. (Duppy Mary is always silent…until she isn’t.)

In another scene, we are taken to a playground, where we see two Black caregivers (Williams and Mattos) sit watching their charges as Mullins—apparently playing the same May as the previous scene, based on her free-flowing profanities—talks on the phone. A young White woman (Jones) arrives pushing a stroller and engages with them in the kind of awkward conversation that tries to bridge the cultural and color lines anf fails miserably. To her credit, Williams’ Mamie does try here, but once Jones’s Miriam recognizes that the others are from Jamaica, she launches into a nonstop recounting of a trip she and her fiancé once took there, her exuberance allowing her brief experience to make her the expert on the birth country of her two Black comrades.

The play, which has been perfectly called “kaleidoscopic,” visits other locations until finally it finds Mary Seacole in Crimea. A comedic nurse training scene morphs into a gory battlefield scene—don’t worry; it’s all PG-13—and we see her diligently working to aid wounded soldiers. Nightingale (played by Mullins), also in this scene, does not come off as well. She rankles at the Jamaican woman with no formal training who has dared to arrive and call herself a “doctress.” (The real Nightingale at times praised Seacole and at others downplayed her contributions.)

In the truly kaleidoscopic “Act Two” final scene, we watch as fragments of all of the other moments whirl before us. We discover, as we have expected, that Duppy Mary, silent no longer, is Seacole’s mother, and she has a lot of angry words about her daughter and—again suddenly shifting centuries—about modern America, decrying (among many other things) terrorism, 9/11, and White Supremacy in her extensive diatribe. (Mays, who has worn a permanent scowl during her silent appearances throughout the show, has clearly been saving up her energy for this powerful explosion.)

This show is more a provocative and powerful dreamscape that must be experienced than a play that will be loved, and I congratulate Griffin Theatre’s artistic director William Massolia for making the decision to present it to Chicago. It may be difficult but, in all of its variegated glory, it is important. I think this one will stick with me for a long time.

Marys Seacole is presented by Griffin Theatre and runs through Nov 6 at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St, Chicago. For tickets and information, please visit Griffin Theatre or call 773-338-2177. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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